On Memorial Day, I think back to my earliest memory of war: news reports of American POWS, and coffins, returning from North Korea in 1953. For half a century now, I've seen young men and women in uniform go off to risk the ultimate sacrifice in service to our country. For half a century, I've been thinking about what it means to serve our country.
When I was a child, it seemed simple enough. Serving our country meant doing whatever our elected leaders deemed necessary. Some Americans still believe this. But after Vietnam, Watergate and a hundred lesser blows to our confidence in our leaders, that definition just won't do for most of us.
Most Americans now hold a more complex definition of service to country. They assume that the policies of the U.S. government are generally humane and well-intentioned. Normally, we should all serve our country by supporting its policies. However, there are exceptions. When we see our government acting wrongly, we should resist. In a democracy, criticism of the government is also a way to serve the country. There is nothing patriotic about passive acquiescence.
Behind this common view lies an often-unspoken assumption that the fundamental goals of America are humane and well-intentioned. If so, then we should assume that the policies crafted to pursue our aims are generally right and good. Serving the country means giving it the benefit of the doubt, serving its policies until we have good reason to believe they are wrong. And when we do find them wrong, we should object to the policies, but not the larger goals.
The clearest example in recent memory was the Vietnam War. A large majority of our people came to disagree with the policy. But most saw it as an aberration, a mistaken way to pursue the basic aims of the nation. Only a few saw it as evidence that those basic aims were themselves mistaken.
What about those few, today, who are not so confident about our fundamental goals? They know how often U.S. policies aim to promote U.S. economic interests. They know how wealth is distributed in this country: As the pie grows, the upper 5 percent or so get an increasingly larger share of it. So they conclude that promoting U.S. interests really means promoting the interests of the upper 5 percent. "Serving your country" too often means serving the rich.
Do these skeptics not want to serve their country? Are they simply anti-Americans? It depends. Some have indeed given up on the possibility of America's playing a positive role in the world. They see the country having sold its soul for greed.
The majority, though, is not so cynical. Members of that majority want to serve our country, but in a different way. They know that the United States was the first nation built on the idea that "all men are created equal." They devote their lives to that same vision. They merely want to update it (all "people" are created equal) and put it into practice. They see in Jefferson's great words the origins of the U.N.'s Declaration of Human Rights, which includes an equal right to basic needs like food, shelter, health care and education. When they see our own nation acting to restrict those rights, they protest — precisely because they are Americans, intent on serving our national ideals.
This group's critique of U.S. policies, no matter how harsh and sweeping, is a profound service to the nation. They remind us that we may be naive to trust in the goodness of our leaders' most basic aims. They call us to read and study widely, then to exercise our own judgment, not only about specific policies, but also about fundamental goals and purposes. They tell us there is nothing patriotic about passive acquiescence on questions of aims as well as policies. In a democracy, citizenship means open discussion of everything, including the most basic question: Has our nation gone astray from its highest ideals and most noble purposes?
Many of our citizens find this question disturbing, even frightening. It calls into doubt the foundation of their lives as Americans. To refute the critics with reasoned arguments would imply that their critique might have some legitimacy. So the self-proclaimed "good Americans" wave away the whole question by calling the critics "anti-Americans," "the hate-America crowd."
Does this dismissive attitude serve our country? It smooths the path toward U.S. political and economic power. It makes life mentally and emotionally easier for the average American. But is that really the service America needs today? Or do we need to talk openly and respectfully about our most basic national goals as well as the specific policies we follow to pursue those goals? Perhaps those are the questions all of us should be discussing this Memorial Day — at least all of us who want to serve our country.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 2003, The Daily Camera